Overcome Doubt and Trust Your Game

TRUST IS A BIG PART of playing sports. When you learn an athletic skill, you learn to trust that you can pull it off when called upon. In most sports, you do this without much thought. You learn to hit a baseball or shoot a jump shot, and these skills become second nature. The action comes at you and instinct takes over; you simply react.

But in golf, there's a catch: You're the one initiating the action. You decide what to do and when to do it. In effect, you're "acting" instead of "reacting." And while this may seem like a nice luxury, it actually works against your athletic instincts. If your mind gets in the way of your body, your performance suffers.

An associate of mine, Dr. Bill Moore, completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia on how athletes handle a lack of trust in their abilities. He found that they exhibit three primary errors: First, they jam their brains with mechanical how-to thoughts; second, they try to guide or over-control the action; and third, they aim too precisely.

Let's take a look at how these errors relate to golf, where doubt and mistrust run rampant, and how to spot them in your game.

Information Overload

GOLF IS A COMPLICATED endeavor -- or at least it can be. And the more you let yourself think about how much goes into it, the more your brain gets in the way of your athleticism.

Warning signs.Mental checklists are the bane of doubting golfers: Left arm straight, weight even, slow takeaway, etc. It's as if they lose confidence in the simple things they learned as beginners, and all the prompts come rushing back. Keeping tabs on your mechanics is healthy, but jamming your brain with information causes tension -- the number-one killer of golf swings.

Other golfers latch onto every swing theory they come across. They have a swing du jour, and it changes every time they hear something new. They're like the guy who swims halfway across the river and can't decide whether to keep going or turn back -- caught in the middle and filled with uncertainty.

HOW TO TRUST AGAIN

Here's a rundown of errors that result from a lack of trust, as well as things you can do to get your confidence back:

If you're thinking too much...

  • Stick to a single swing theory Focus on one or two key thoughts
  • Pick a Tour player to emulate

If you're guiding or steering...

  • Practice to wide-open spaces
  • Let the club free-wheel through impact
  • Identify shots that make you tense

If you're being too precise...

  • Widen your target areas
  • Go a little easier on yourself
  • Don't play the hero shots

What to do. The best way to battle the urge to follow too much advice is to identify the swing keys that best counter your faults. Have your local PGA pro help you choose one or two swing thoughts to focus on, such as "low and slow in the takeaway" or "complete the backswing." Then videotape some of your good swings for comparison the next time you start to slip.

You might also plant in your brain the image of a Tour player who exaggerates the move you're trying to make. For instance, if you're struggling to make a full turn, envision John Daly wound up at the top. In fact, videotape the player's swing from a telecast and watch it often so you can replay it in your mind.

Too Much Insurance

ANOTHER COMMON ERROR of golfers lacking trust is trying to be too careful, guiding or steering the motion rather than letting it flow. This error can be seen in quarterbacks throwing a simple screen pass or tennis players hitting into the open court: They assert too much control and, ironically, wind up with less.

Warning signs. Look out for a tendency to steer your swing on tight driving holes and difficult approach shots. Around the greens, many golfers guide their pitches and bunker shots with a scooping motion and hit short putts with a scared pop-and-recoil action.

How do you know you're guiding? On full swings, the big indicators are weak shots, abbreviated follow-throughs, and slices as you try to "hold on" through the hitting area, cutting off the release and leaving the clubface open at impact. On greenside shots, the scooping action will yield fat or thin contact, and in putting, you'll struggle to get the ball consistently on line.

What to do. To snap out of a bad case of "the steers," practice hitting balls into wide-open spaces with no boundaries to make you feel cramped. You have to relearn the notion that giving up control leads to more control. But do it in baby steps: Hit into open spaces, then play a few casual rounds before bringing back the pressure of hitting critical shots.

On the course, keep track of the shots you tried to over-control and those you didn't. This accounting should prove that less control means better shots. It may also reveal your problem shots, such as uphill drives or approach shots to pins on the left. If you discover patterns, you'll know to pay special attention when you face those troubling situations.

Shrunken Targets

TRYING TO BE MORE PRECISE when your game is a bit shaky may seem like a logical undertaking, but it only sets you up for more failure. Look at it this way: If you can't consistently drop a 9-iron within a 10-yard circle on the green, why try to do it when you're struggling?

Warning signs. If you're picking tiny targets 300 yards out or trying to drop approach shots in the hole, you're asking too much of yourself. Such precision also leads to more time over the ball, and that opens the door for negative thinking and tension.

What to do. Do the opposite of what seems logical: Widen your targets. Struggling tennis players who try to "paint the lines" usually lose; basketball players who go for "nothing but net" hoist a lot of air balls. The point is, athletes need freedom in their motion.

Don't even think about high-risk shots -- remember, you're not exactly brimming with confidence. Instead, go for the wide part of the fairway or the fat of the green. And when putting, don't pick overly precise lines; envision a wide track to the hole. Everything you do should inspire confidence and work to wipe away doubt.

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